Home > Individualising justice: pre-sentence reports in the Irish criminal justice system.

MaGuire, Niamh and Carr, Nichola (2017) Individualising justice: pre-sentence reports in the Irish criminal justice system. Dublin: Probation Service.

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Pre-sentence or pre-sanction reports (PSRs) provide judges with information on the personal circumstances, background and attitude of a defendant, an assessment of risk of reoffending, and typically include sentence recommendations1. Yet despite their potential to contribute to the sentencing process in Ireland, we know relatively little about how PSRs are constructed in practice, when and in what circumstances they are requested, how probation officers construct and ‘craft’ their report, how judges view or interpret the contents of the report, and perhaps most significantly, the impact that such reports have on sentencing practice.

Previous sentencing research has shown that social and moral reasoning, in the form of information about the character, personality and circumstances of an individual, can be highly influential in sentencing, especially when judges are choosing between custodial and non-custodial penalties (Tombs and Jagger, 2006; Millie et al., 2007; Maguire, 2008; Tata et al., 2008; Beyens and Scheirs, 2010; Phoenix, 2010). While legal factors are also important, research shows that judicial interpretations of the offender’s character and attitude, as well as their interpretations of certain aspects of an individual’s personal and social circumstances, including employment and relationship status, are influential in terms of their decision to impose either a custodial or non-custodial penalty (Tombs and Jagger, 2006; Millie et al., 2007; Maguire, 2008, 2010, 2011). The type of information provided in pre-sentence reports is also the type of information that is influential in sentencing, however, to date there has been no research in the Irish context exploring the relationship between pre-sentence reports and sentencing.

Similarly, the contribution that probation officers make to sentencing, through the provision of PSRs, is relatively unexplored (Carr and Maguire, 2012). Traditionally the role of the probation officer in the criminal justice system was considered to be more welfare than control oriented (Healy, 2015; Carr, 2016). Given this practice perspective and the history of the development of probation (i.e. as an alternative to custody) (McNally, 2007; 2009), probation officers would be expected to recommend the use of non-custodial over custodial sanctions. Similarly, pre-sentence reports would be expected to focus on the social aspects of the defendant’s situation and to contain information which would assist consideration of the appropriateness of a community based sanction.

More recently it has been argued that more emphasis has been placed on control elements in probation practice in response to policy changes that have foregrounded public protection (Fitzgibbon et al., 2010). In Ireland, this is illustrated by the introduction of risk assessment tools in 2004 and by the increasing importance that the Probation Service places on the need to protect the community and provide for public safety (Richardson, 2008; Bracken, 2010; Healy, 2015). An important question is the extent to which pre-sentence reports now prioritise risk assessment over other forms of information and if this is the case, the influence that this may have on judicial sentencing practices.

Pre-sentence reports also represent a key point of exchange between two distinct professional groups within the criminal justice system. Probation officers and judges have very different professional backgrounds and training and are likely to view issues from different perspectives. Previous research has explored pre-sentence reports as a form of communication between report writers and judges (Tata et al., 2008; Beyens and Scheirs, 2010; Wandall, 2010). This research is similarly focused on pre-sentence reports as a form of communication between report writers and judges and an important question which we explore is the extent to which the processes of communication embodied in the reports align with the specific aims and objectives of those writing the reports and with the expectations of those receiving and interpreting the reports.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Report
Drug Type
All substances
Intervention Type
Harm reduction, Crime prevention
July 2017
124 p.
Probation Service
Place of Publication
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